Harriet Nash was going to Hell.
As she sat there, quietly sipping her tea, she became more and more convinced of that inevitability. After all, what sort of person was she that she felt envious of her dearest friend's happiness? Watching Laurel hug her two-year-old son, Harriet felt another wave of envy wash over her, leaving her utterly convinced that she was bound for Hades.
"He's quite the handful," Laurel admitted as she kissed Ryan's cheek before handing him off to his waiting nanny. "But then again, so am I," she finished with a laugh, smoothing her hands down her rounded stomach.
"I'm certain you've not heard a word of complaint from Royce," Harriet insisted, setting down her cup, "as you are even lovelier than usual when you're enceinte."
"That's very sweet of you, Harriet, but I assure you I'm feeling anything but lovely these days. I waddle like a duck, my back aches every day, and my ankles have all but disappeared." Lifting up her skirt, Laurel stuck out a foot in order to prove her point.
"And you wouldn't trade one miserable minute of it."
Laurel grinned broadly. "Of course not, but that doesn't mean I can't complain about it." A wicked gleam lit her gaze. "Especially to Royce."
"That only seems fair as he's partly responsible for your condition."
"Precisely." Glancing around the drawing room, Laurel remarked, "Speaking of responsibilities, where are your aunts?"
Harriet couldn't help but laugh at the question. "I convinced them they needed to shop for my parents' visit."
"Your parents?" Laurel's eyes widened. "You shall have both your parents and your aunts directing your days now?"
Glumly, Harriet nodded. "My parents are absolute dears, and I adore them, but they are so...so..."
"Overprotective?" Laurel offered.
"Exactly. They shall follow me to every social event, hovering about, trying to ensure I have a marvelous time, and, in the process, scare away any of the few gentlemen who might ask me to dance."
"It is a problem," agreed Laurel. "Even now, your aunts, dears that they are, tend to intimidate all but the most stalwart gentlemen. Why, you hardly danced at the last few balls."
Much as Harriet would like to blame her lack of popularity upon her two aunts, she knew they weren't entirely at fault. "I've never danced much, Laurel," Harriet pointed out softly. "I'm well received by most of the ladies in society, but hardly spared a glance by the gentlemen. My aunts merely provide a convenient excuse upon which to blame my lack of appeal."
A scowl darkened Laurel's face as she immediately leapt to Harriet's defense. "You are far too harsh on yourself, Harriet," she protested loyally. "You are..."
"Yoo-hoo!" The loud, singsong call interrupted Laurel. "We're home, Harriet dear!"
A moment later, Aunt Agatha burst into the room, her short, round figure swaying under the weight of her packages. "Just wait until you see what I bought," she said from behind a stack of boxes.
Rising to help her aunt, Harriet reached for the top four boxes. "Why didn't you ask the footman to carry these in?"
"Because he's carrying in the rest." Aunt Agatha's smiling face appeared as Harriet removed her boxes. "Oh, my, that is much better," she pronounced brightly, before glancing over toward Laurel. "My darling Laurel, what a pleasant surprise to see you." With no concern for their contents, Aunt Agatha tossed the remaining boxes onto a nearby wing-back chair. "I didn't know you were going to call upon us today," she said, sending a reproachful glance at Harriet. As Laurel struggled to stand up, Aunt Agatha waved her back down into the chair. "Oh, no, my dear. Don't get up on my account," she said as she hurried over to press a kiss upon Laurel's cheek.
"Thank you, Lady Agatha," murmured Laurel. Patting her stomach, she said ruefully, "This belly of mine makes it difficult to stand."
"Mine does as well," Aunt Agatha admitted with a laugh, "and I can't even blame my width upon a baby."
"A few more shopping trips like this, Aggie, and I vow you'll be thin as a post," pronounced Aunt Hilda as she sailed into the room with regal grace. "Good afternoon, Harriet, Laurel," she said, smiling at them. "I'd advise both of you to avoid the shops for a few days...in order to give them time to restock."
"Don't be an old pooh," Aunt Agatha chided as she reached up to remove her hat. "Not only were all my purchases absolute necessities, but they were wonderfully priced as well."
Peeling off her gloves, Aunt Hilda smoothed her hands down the front of her dove gray walking dress. "I hardly consider those ivory combs a necessity and, I assure you, Aggie, that they were not a bargain."
Aunt Agatha's peacock blue gown fluttered out behind her as she hurried over to where she'd tossed her packages. Digging through the smallest box, she retrieved two pretty ivory combs and held them up for everyone to see. "These will match my new ball gown perfectly, so how can you say they aren't necessary?"
Harriet stifled a smile at the exasperated sigh that broke from Aunt Hilda. "Really, Aggie," she returned dryly with a shake of her head. "With the way you fritter away your funds, it's no wonder you have little monies left."
"I beg to differ, Hilda. Might I remind you that I still receive my monthly stipend, thank you very much," she retorted crisply.
"Which is spent within a day, leaving you fairly penniless for the remainder of the month."
Aunt Agatha shrugged her shoulders. "It is my money to do with as I please."
"That's quite true, but have you considered if you were less of a spendthrift, you would be able to settle a larger portion upon Harriet," Hilda pointed out quietly.
Guilt warred with distress in Aunt Agatha's expression as she turned toward Harriet. "Oh, my dear, darling niece, I'm being so dreadfully selfish, aren't I?"
"Of course not," Harriet rushed to assure her. "You've already settled a portion upon me. Besides, it is your money, and I would prefer that you spend it in a manner that pleases you."
Stepping forward, Aunt Agatha laid a gentle hand upon Harriet's cheek. "Having you live here with me and Hilda for these past few years is what has pleased me more than anything."
Love warmed her. "I feel the same way, Aunt Agatha."
"Yes, yes," Aunt Hilda interrupted tartly. "We know that you love us, just as you know we adore you, Harriet, but that has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that if you had a larger portion, it might entice a gentleman of breeding."
"If I need a fortune in order to attract a gentleman, Aunt Hilda, then he's not someone I wish to marry anyway," Harriet asserted without hesitation. No, she wanted what her friend Laurel had: To be adored by her husband, to feel overwhelming love for that special someone, to know that they were bound to each other for eternity. "I don't want to have to purchase a husband."
"Don't be crass, dear," reprimanded Aunt Hilda. "Besides, you are scoffing at a time-honored reason for marrying."
"Because the notion deserves to be mocked." Laurel levered herself out of her chair. Slipping her arm through Harriet's, she faced down the aunts. "Our Harriet deserves to marry for love, don't you agree?"
"Just because a marriage is arranged, doesn't mean that love can't form," protested Aunt Agatha. "Why, my marriage was arranged by my parents, yet I grew most fond of my dear Roland."
"I fear 'most fond' is a far cry from 'in love.'"
Harriet's soft remark fell upon deaf ears. "Good Heavens, Harriet, must you be so impractical? Can't you see that liking your husband, being compatible with him, is far more important than that flash of heat most women mistake for love?"
Hiding a smile, Laurel cleared her throat. "Excuse me, Lady Agatha, but I beg to differ. I'm madly in love with my Royce."
With a wave of her hand, Aunt Agatha dismissed the statement. "I know, dear, but you are the exception, not the rule."
"Especially here in town," added Aunt Hilda. "The gentlemen of the town are a jaded, cynical lot who want nothing more than to marry someone of good breeding and heritage, beget her with child, then resume their debased pastimes, secure in the knowledge that they've done their duty to their name and title."
Both Harriet and Laurel blinked at the surprisingly vehement outburst. While her aunt had often made caustic remarks about any gentleman she'd shown an interest in, it was the first time Harriet had heard such harshness from her aunt. "But I thought you wanted me to marry," Harriet finally said.
"Indeed, I do. However, I feel it best if you return with your parents to the country and find an honorable gentleman there."
With a few simple words, Aunt Hilda had knocked the breath out of her. Struggling to remain calm, Harriet shook her head. "I have no wish to return to the country. I'd prefer to live here in town with you and Aunt Agatha until I marry."
"I quite agree with Harriet," Laurel stated firmly. "It would devastate me to lose my best friend in the world."
"You wouldn't be losing her," Aunt Hilda assured her. "Hartsdale Manor is only a day outside of town, and you could visit her there whenever you wish."
"But I don't want to return to the country," Harriet repeated, this time in a firmer voice. "Growing up, I never had the slightest interest in any of the gentlemen around me. Their conversations centered around crops and farms and other dreadfully dull things that bored me to tears. The gentlemen I've met in town are urbane, charming, and much more interesting than their country peers."
"I agree with Harriet," announced Aunt Agatha, shooting her sister a quelling look. "Besides, this is a discussion that can wait until Sally and Lionel arrive."
Suddenly, all the pieces fell into place: The unexpected visit from her parents, Aunt Agatha's sudden urging for her to marry, and the negative remarks from Aunt Hilda about any gentleman who happened to show even the slightest bit of interest in her.
Oh, Lord, everyone wanted her to leave London.
Everyone but Laurel and Aunt Agatha that is.
Desperately, Harriet tried to think of a way to use that to her advantage. There simply had to be a way to stay in London. If she was forced to return to the country, her dreams of finding what Laurel had found with Royce would shrivel and die beneath the weight of horrid conversations about fertilizers and the like.
No, she needed to remain in London.
Whatever the cost.
Lord, he despised the city.
Steven pulled back on the reins and the well-matched bays came to a halt like the perfectly trained carriage horses they were. Of course, he'd expect nothing less for the bloody fortune he'd paid for them.
Alighting from his newly purchased tilbury, Steven paused to brush off his jacket. While the dashing open carriage was a pleasure to drive in the country, it left one somewhat unprotected from the soot and stench so pervasive here in London. The city's smells invoked memories of his days of folly after Royce's marriage to Laurel. Steven winced as he thought of the depths of his debauchery during that first year after his best friend's marriage. All the women, liquor, and gambling had done little to ease his guilt over having fallen in love with Royce's wife. It was only after he'd sobered enough to spend time with Laurel again that he'd realized that his feelings for her had mellowed into deep affection. The guilt was finally assuaged, he'd retreated to the country to reclaim his sense of honor...and he'd been doing a fine job of it until this little mess had occurred.
Indeed, he'd been perfectly content, nay, joyful even at his country estate. All the repairs were progressing splendidly, and the cottages he was building only added to the appeal of his property. When the hunting lodge, the bathing house, and the fishing cottage were completed, he was positive they would only enhance his enjoyment of his private sanctuary.
Which is precisely why he hated every blasted minute he had to spend away from his home...especially when it involved coming into town.
Yet, he'd been left with little choice when his landscape architect, John Nash, the premier arborist in all of England, had informed him that Mr. Tyler, Steven's solicitor, had been unable to honor his marker for payment. Though embarrassed, Nash had informed Steven that he couldn't progress on his design for the grounds without payment.
Stunned, Steven had ordered his carriage brought around and headed into town to straighten out the matter. He'd gone to Tyler's place of business only to be informed that Tyler was ill and had remained at home. Sick or not, Tyler was going to provide some sort of explanation for the blunder he'd made in turning away Steven's marker. After all, Steven knew his financial status was secure. Tyler was bloody well going to set things aright...and issue a formal apology to Nash for the mistake.
Steven secured the reins to the post in front of Tyler's home and took the steps two at a time to reach the dark wooden door on the well-maintained brownstone. His knock was answered promptly, and he was shown into Tyler's parlor. Tapping his fingers against the windowpane, Steven waited impatiently.
A loud sneeze heralded Tyler's arrival. Bleary-eyed and pale, Tyler looked as miserable as he sounded. "Good day, my l -- l -- l..." Another sneeze punctuated the greeting. "...my lord."
Steven might have felt guilty at dragging the fellow from his bed if he weren't so blasted annoyed. Instead, Steven waved Tyler into a nearby chair. "Sorry for the intrusion, sir, but the matter is of the utmost importance."
"Yes, yes, I know," Mr. Tyler assured him, pausing for a moment to blow his nose. "I'd hoped to be well enough to call upon you and bring this matter to your attention."
Steven looked sharply at his solicitor. "What matter?"
A baffled expression crept over Mr. Tyler's countenance. "Why, your lack of finances, naturally, my lord."
"Lack of finances?" he repeated slowly, before shaking his head. "You've obviously made a mistake."
"I'm afraid that's not possible," Mr. Tyler advised him glumly. "After I received the notes of debit from your mother, I..."
"My mother?" Steven tried to grasp what his solicitor was saying. If the man were speaking a foreign language, he might have had an easier go of understanding him.
Mr. Tyler nodded once. "Her debts were exceedingly large and when combined with your own recent expenditures..." He trailed off, leaving the obvious conclusion unspoken.
"But I had more than adequate funds to cover my mother's jaunt through Europe along with repairing my estate," Steven protested.
"That's true, my lord...but then I doubt if you anticipated the sum of your mother's expenditures."
"Good God, man! How much could fripperies cost?" When Tyler mentioned the amount, Steven shook his head in denial, unable to get his mind around the sum. "I still don't understand how she could have gone through so much money," he murmured.
"That is a question only Lady Heath can answer."
Steven fisted his hands, fighting to hold onto his control. "How much is left?"
Tyler coughed into his handkerchief. "Lady Heath spent a fortune, my lord...your entire fortune."
Steven flinched as if he'd been struck, but he remained standing straight, unwilling to let his solicitor know how devastated he was at his sudden reversal of fortune.
"I loathe to be the bearer of even more unhappy tidings, my lord, but I feel it only right to inform you of the entire truth of the matter." Tyler hesitated a moment. "I've received a second set of markers due and owing, markers that cannot be covered."
"This can't be possible," he muttered, more to himself than to Tyler.
"I assure you it is, my lord," Mr. Tyler replied somberly. "And if you don't find a way in which to cover the additional markers, I fear you might face debtors' gaol."
As Steven stalked out onto the street, he wished he was at Minton's so he could pound out some of his frustrations. Mr. Tyler stood, wheezing, at the door, concern darkening his features, but Steven was too angry even to manage a farewell.
Bloody Hell. He was a damn pauper! No, he was worse; he was a debtor.
Grabbing hold of the reins, Steven vaulted into his carriage. How ironic that only moments before, he'd looked upon his conveyance with pride, noting the gleaming trim and smart horses; but now all he could see was yet another debt. A wave of anger toward his mother crashed over him, making Steven glad that she was still traveling back from the Continent. He needed to regain control of his anger before he saw her.
pardThe thought of heading for his country estate, seeing all the work in progress and knowing that he could lose all he possessed, was unbearable. The last thing he needed right now was to see all he stood to lose. What he needed was to get royally drunk. Thinking it was the best idea he'd had all day, Steven headed for his club, determined to lose himself in brandy.
When he arrived outside the hallowed doors of White's Gentleman's Club, Steven tossed his reins to the footman and strode inside. As he entered the elegant rooms, he wondered if this would be the last time he'd be welcome, a thought that only strengthened his determination to get mindlessly inebriated.
Heading back to the rear of the smoking room, Steven spied his friend, Royce, comfortably ensconced in a leather chair, enjoying a cigar and brandy. "Steven!" Royce exclaimed, raising his hand. "What the devil are you doing back in town? I thought it would take a minor miracle to get you out of the country."
Steven shrugged, not wanting to get into all the nasty details. "Looks like you were mistaken."
"Come, join me," Royce bade as he gestured toward a nearby chair. "I'll welcome your company as you aren't female and irritable like my wife or two years old and demanding like my son," he added with a broad grin that belied his words.
Steve shook his head. "I fear I'm far worse company than either Laurel or Ryan could ever be."
Royce's brows lifted. "That bad?"
"Well, now I'm afraid I'll have to insist you join me. Misery loves company and all that rot." Royce straightened in his chair. "You can't toss out that bit and expect me to swallow my curiosity."
Torn between wanting to talk about his recent trouble and wanting to keep the horrid news private, Steven remained standing. "I'd rather get drunk than talk."
Instead of being insulted, Royce tossed back his head with a laugh. "Now that's what I like to hear!" he exclaimed. "I thought you'd turned your estate into a monastery and given up all earthly pleasures." He pointed to the chair across from him. "Now plant your arse there and tell me what brought on this return of the old Steven."
"The old Steven?"
"Yes, you remember him, don't you?" Royce asked with a grin. "He was the amusing fellow who used to set the tongues of the ton wagging with his exploits. Hell, Steven, your reputation for excess in all things is legendary." He slanted up one eyebrow. "And, I'll be the first to tell you, you were a hell of a lot more enjoyable to be around than when you left London behind and lived your monkish existence in the country."
"It was hardly monkish," Steven protested.
"When was the last time you got drunk?"
He couldn't remember. "Lord, I have become a monk!" Lifting his hand, he ordered a decanter of brandy before taking his seat. "Luckily I'm just in the mood to correct that failing." When the servant set the brandy down next to him, Steven refilled Royce's glass as well as pouring himself a full snifter. Taking a long draw on the amber liquid, Steven savored the taste. "I'm going to miss the taste of fine brandy."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm going to have to give up these little pleasures," Steven admitted, anger simmering inside of him. "I'm bloody destitute."
"On my way to debtors' gaol in the very near future if I don't sell off my entire estate." He tipped his glass toward Royce. "Lovely little turn of events, isn't it?"
"What the devil happened?"
With anger coloring his voice, Steven poured out the entire confusing chain of events. "...so as you can see, I'm in debt with no means of repaying the creditors without bankrupting myself."
"Hardly," Royce said, rejecting Steven's assertion. "True, you're in a bit of a rough patch, but you're hardly going to be hauled off to gaol or be forced into selling your home." He set his glass down upon the table. "I'll cover your markers."
"I'm not taking your money, Royce," Steven retorted, his gut twisting at the thought. It was bad enough to admit to his financial ruin; there was no way Steven would give up his honor by accepting financial assistance from his friend.
"If you're worrying about paying me back, don't. It wouldn't be a loan, but rather a gift." He waved dismissively. "Let's call it repayment for your help with Laurel." As Steven opened his mouth to protest, Royce cut him off. "I know what you're going to say," he began. "And while I understand that you only spent time with Laurel to torment me and make me jealous, well, it worked. I can hardly complain about your methods when the results were so overwhelmingly satisfactory; so I do indeed owe you."
"If you think I'm going to sit here while you insult me, you're sadly mistaken," Steven ground out as he slammed his brandy glass down onto the table.
"Absolutely." Steven leaned forward. "It's my mess; I can figure out a way to clean it up myself."
Lifting both hands, Royce grinned. "Didn't mean to insult you, Steven." He took a sip of his brandy. "If you insist on keeping hold of your debt, I suppose there's only one thing to be done." He pointed the tip of his cigar at Steven. "You, my friend, have got to catch yourself an heiress."
Steven groaned at the suggestion.
"What's wrong with the idea?" Royce leaned forward, resting his elbows upon his knees. "It's time you marry and secure an heir anyway, so why not fulfill all your needs in one fell swoop?"
"Because it's so...so..."
"Repulsive," Steven corrected his friend. "I've already explained to you about this mess my mother has caused. The last thing I need is another female muddling up my life."
"You know what your problem is, Steven? You've been locked away at that country estate too long." Royce settled back in his chair, a broad smile upon his face. "You've obviously forgotten what delightful creatures females can be."
"Oh, I'll admit they're delightful, in certain circumstances. But marriage?" Steven lifted his glass to Royce. "I shall leave that to you."
Royce's expression sobered as he leaned forward, glancing around to ensure their privacy. "Is your reluctance toward marriage because of your feelings for Laurel?"
"Absolutely not," Steven assured his friend. "I long ago realized that what I feel for your wife is nothing more than the deep affection of friendship." He lifted a shoulder. "My reluctance to wed is the dread I feel every time I imagine shackling myself to one woman."
"Personally, I find marriage suits me perfectly."
"Perhaps, but even you, my friend, who wed for love often find yourself on the outs with your wife," Steven pointed out.
Royce grinned widely. "Arguments serve to spice up our wedded bliss. At least I'm never bored."
"Now there's an inducement to wed," Steven drawled.
"Then marry one of those young chits who won't murmur a cross word."
Steven shivered at the thought. "And be followed about by a brainless twit? No thank you."
"Quite honestly, Steven," Royce began, leaning back in his chair and propping a booted foot against the table, "I don't see where you have much choice."
Blast and damn, but Royce was right. If he was going to save his estate, retain his honor, he needed to find an heiress and wed her before his financial ruin came to light. As distasteful as he might find the idea, he was willing to do whatever it took to preserve his honor and name. "You're right," he finally ground out.
"Of course I am. You find a wealthy wife and your future will be secure." Royce laughed softly. "In fact, I think we should make a game of it."
"You heard me. Remember how you challenged me to apply my theory that finding a proper bride was like running a fox to ground?"
"I remember," Steven retorted with a chuckle. "Know your quarry, scent her, then give chase until she wearies, and you catch your bride."
"Precisely." Royce tapped his finger against the side of his glass. "Well, the chase invigorated me, and I strongly recommend you enjoy the hunt as well."
For the first time since learning of his empty coffers, Steven laughed. "But that theory is ridiculous!"
"Don't scoff at it, Steven. After all, you can't argue with its success." Before Steven could protest, Royce lifted his hands. "I know that there were areas of the theory that needed to be tuned and shifted, but overall, it was a sound application of logic."
"If I remember correctly, your courtship didn't go nearly that smoothly."
"Ah, yes, but I learned quite a bit along the way, and I think this time we could perfect the hunt." Royce's eyes gleamed brightly. "So, what do you say?"
Steven couldn't help but smile at Royce's unabashed enthusiasm and arrogance. Still, what did he have to lose? Royce was correct that an heiress was the perfect solution to his current problems, and it was time for Steven to secure an heir. So, why not kill two birds with one stone? Instead of fuming over his fate, why not accept it? If he agreed to Royce's scheme, Lord knows, it would be overwhelmingly entertaining at the very least. Besides, if he used logic to find an heiress, it might be far quicker than any formal courtship, and he could leave this blasted town behind. The way he saw it, he could approach the matter of finding an heiress in one of two ways: gloom and doom or as a lark -- continuation of Royce's half-baked theory.
Put that way, there really was no choice.
Copyright © 2002 by Victoria Malvey
Chasing a Rogue
Harriet Nash longs for marital bliss, and the dashing Steven Morris, Earl of Heath, seems the ideal candidate in every way. Following her theory that catching the perfect mate is like a fox hunt, Harriet sets out to snare a husband. But Steven proves a difficult catch, evading all her artful traps with ease. Undaunted, Harriet devises a new plan: to convince Steven that she'll help him catch a wife if he helps her find a suitable husband. With empty family coffers demanding that he marry a wealthy heiress, Steven must resist his growing desire for Harriet. When she approaches him with her plan, he eagerly agrees, hoping that time spent with Harriet will cure him of his fascination -- never suspecting that their secret scheming would soon turn into a very public passion....
- Pocket Books |
- 352 pages |
- ISBN 9780743421850 |
- November 2002